04 Learning Environment

Create a learning environment that speaks “learnish”

Based on John Hattie’s research into Visible Learning, Guy Claxton suggests creating a learning environment that doesn’t only show finished pieces of learning, but the learning process as well. He refers to this as “the guts of learning”. Doing this develops a positive attitude to making, learning from and building on mistakes. It also shows that you don’t only value the finished product, but the process of learning as well. Worked examples, like Ron Berger’s “Austin’s Butterfly” bring to life the process of learning and revising for children. If you haven’t already seen it, it’s well worth its 6 minute’s worth! At St Bernard’s school, in Ellesmere Port, they have an example of Austin’s Butterfly on their hall displays. You could also do this will children’s learning. There is an example of a part of such a display on the page on “Ownership“.

The learning environment can also be used to expand on and explore learning muscles, embed challenge and celebrate learning from mistakes (and anything other learning habits you would like your children to develop!)

It’s only been in the last year that I feel I’ve really started to capitalise on and build my learning environment to support the process of children’s learning. Here are a few ideas I’ve used in my classroom over the past few years (many of which are “magpied” from other teachers!)

The Learning Ladder and Kind Hands

Thanks to Julian Swindale at Sefton Park School, Bristol

Developing empathy and reflectiveness. Promoting a relish of challenge (see more here).

I have found the Learning Ladder an absolute essential in every classroom I have taught. In fact, I even found a way of using this when teaching adults English in Argentina! This is how I set it up in my current class, but you can think of your own creative ways of doing it:

Take an individual photo of each child in your class (and each adult – very important for modelling being a good learner!). Also, take a whole class one – very powerful! Velcro them to one wall. On another wall, laminate children’s handprints and attach a “Learning Ladder”. When the children spot someone being kind, they can move their face onto Kind Hands. The Learning Ladder is used to reflect on the level of challenge in their learning. Kind Hands is a great way to help children build up an understanding of kindness and empathy and, as long as you value it and review it regularly with the class, ensures kindness is embedded into the classroom ethos. This not only teaches children kindness and empathy but makes your life much easier as there will be fewer niggles in your classroom (well, that’s what I’ve found anyway)!

The journey of learning

Various walls in my classroom show the journey of learning. Some are large scale plans of an up-and-coming project like a performance or End of Unit Outcome, some show the process of solving a maths problem or working towards an overall writing goal. This display shows “the guts of learning” towards making non-fiction pages. We discussed as a class the kinds of things we would need to do to make an awesome fact page. We noticed and explored non-fiction texts, jotted down notes on our favourite facts, planned the format of our pages like graphic designers, then started to draft and redraft paragraphs and text boxes before putting everything together. This display shows the process of that planning. The children were involved in every stage and we took time to reflect as we went. Now the children can be proud of the eye-catching and informative pages they produce as well as the effort and learning that went into them.

A Planning Wall

Each topic we did at Christchurch Infants had a “finale”. The children knew about this at the beginning of the topic and we planned towards it. This developed their planning and revising skills. One display in my classroom showed the children’s plans and photos of us following out each part of the plan. This gives the children ownership over their learning – each idea is valued and carried out (see more on ownership here). If it isn’t, we talk about why not (e.g. the idea isn’t practical in some way). The example above shows our planning towards a Mad Hatter’s Tea Party.

Plays and performances have developed by using the learning environment. As the children write the script, develop characters and design and revise props, the walls then grow with their ideas.

A Learning Muscle wall

Once you have got to grips with speaking “Learnish” your next steps will be to go deeper into each learning disposition/muscle so that the children can understand how to stretch them. One way of helping children to understand what good collaboration looks like, or what good perseverance looks like, is to create a display, picking that learning muscle apart. I take photos “catching” the children being good learners. We then have a circle time with the children to discuss their ideas of what a good collaborator looks like, for example. This creates an instant display that can be referred back to during any learning.

Mistake of the week!

This display was thrown up quickly, so it isn’t the most beautiful display in my classroom! The idea is the most important though. Each week (or fortnight! – whenever it comes up!), I notice when children have a positive attitude to making mistakes. We celebrate as a class and display their learning on the Mistake of the Week board. This raises the profile of making mistakes and you often here children shouting, “Yes! I made a mistake!” and if you’re lucky, “That means my brain just grew!”

I love this quote from Thomas Edison about the value of mistake-making:

“You must learn to fail intelligently. Failing is one of the greatest arts in the world. One fails forward towards success.”

You could also think about how your learning environment extends beyond the classroom. For example, how could you use your windows to involve parents in developing their child’s learning power? How could you build on and develop “Learnish” in your classroom? (There are some ideas on this later on in the site, but you might want to have a think about this yourself before moving on!)